For Halloween Horror Night's 30th year, Universal Orlando has leaned into the event's three-decade history to fill this year's edition with callbacks. That doesn't mean a newbie won't enjoy the event. Universal knows how to program entertainment for multiple levels of fans, after all. But the more you know about the 30 years of Halloween Horror Nights, the more you may find here.
Overall, as always, Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights looks gorgeous. The production design here never fails to amaze, with some jaw-dropping scenes that make you want to stop in awe rather than following the conga line to the next scare around the corner.
And that brings up my one big beef with the east coast HHN - pacing. I long for a future where Universal produces a Halloween Horror Nights with Orlando's production design and Hollywood's operations. Too many times tonight, I caught the troughs between the scares rather than riding the crest through the house. People complain about blackout hallways in Hollywood, but those, coupled with pulsing fans through the mazes, create pacing that allows fans to catch a higher percentage of scares than I find I catch in Orlando.
That inconsistency inevitably leads to inconsistency in house rankings, especially on opening night, when fans haven't had the opportunity to go through all the houses often enough for things to even out.
Also, 10 houses in one night is just too much to take in everything. Universal Orlando has learned over the years to design its Halloween Horror Nights for repeat visits. And it does that by overloading its house line-up with more houses, with more detail and more scare opportunities than any one person - even a Theme Park Insider - can absorb in one visit. You are supposed to come on more than one night, in order to take in it all.
So take my rankings as the first impression they are. Your experience may - and probably will - vary.
Halloween Horror Nights Icons: Captured - This year's headliners tick all my boxes: Creating amazing spaces, filled with engaging characters, that trigger a variety of emotional responses. You don't need to know these icons of Horror Nights past to appreciate the traps they have set for you. But if you do, this is a perfect trip down HHN memory lane. Note that the icon on the throne in the final scene will change multiple times throughout the night. As I said, Universal really wants you to visit again and again.
The Haunting of Hill House - The house is a perfect representation of the Netflix series that inspired it. It's not the scariest or most terrifying house here. But it will stick with you, if you can take a moment to appreciate its scale and detail. "Hill House" elevated horror by engaging your brain as much as your hypothalamus. I said that Universal wants repeat visits from its Horror Nights fans. With its impressive audio track and Pepper's Ghost and animation effects, this is the house that most made me want to come back this year. Like a member of the Crain family, I just can't quit this place - even if the scares didn't time right for me tonight.
Case Files Unearthed: Legendary Truth - Another callback house, this one extends the Legendary Truth storyline that's been featured in past Horror Nights. We are following gumshoe Boris Shuster (who has a window on the park's New York streets, BTW), as he tracks a series of paranormal events throughout the city, in the form of old pulp fiction novels. This house features some wonderful placemaking and a unique tone that made me turn right around and go through it again. Gotta love the Jersey Devil at the end. Oh, and those callbacks to October 25, 1991? That's the date of Universal Studios Florida's very first night of what became HHN. (Wait a minute - I share a birthday with Halloween Horror Nights?)
Beetlejuice - Like the movie it's based on, this one is pure fun. More carnival madhouse than horror, Beetlejuice delivers the joy that Senior Show Director Charles Gray talked about during our conversation this afternoon. Yes, fun houses don't get the love from some horror fans, but I'll always say I'm up for a good time. I'll say it three times, in fact.
Wicked Growth: Realm of the Pumpkin - I really wish I had the time to go through this one again. The Pumpkin Lord is preparing for his yearly human harvest, and Universal depicts this twisted tale with some amazing production design, leading up to the Pumpkin Lord's lair. The increasing pumpkin roots throughout literally bind these story scenes together. Unfortunately, I walked through a big chunk of this house without hitting a single scare, my timing was so off.
Universal Monsters: The Bride of Frankenstein Lives - Orlando's version jumps into the story without the set-up that Hollywood's maze will provide. But the visual design here impresses, throwing you into the gothic ruins from which the Bride will resuscitate her monster. Just another amazing environment.
Puppet Theatre: Captive Audience - A great facade here helps set the (ruined) stage for San Francisco’s Grandeur Theatre, abandoned after an earthquake. But the surviving Puppet Troupe within has been transforming curious trespassers into living marionettes for its next production. It's all designed to trigger people creeped out by dolls and puppets. Again, I missed some of the scares, but the engaging set and production design made this another solid house. And Today I Learned I still remember from high school theater the smell of stage makeup.
This is where we finally reach a gap between the houses, in my book.
Revenge of the Tooth Fairy - The innovative animated storybook beginning of this house had me ready to place it at the top of my list. But once we get past the set-up of a child who breaks the social code by not wanting to let the fairies collect their fallen-out teeth, this house gets repetitive. How many times do we need to see a bloodthirsty fairy killing people for their teeth?
Welcome to sCarey: Horror in the Heartland - Calling back to years' worth of event references to Senior Manager Lora Sauls' hometown of Carey, Ohio, this maze will entertain you pretty much in accordance with how many past HHN references to Carey that you remember.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - The fact that this house ranks last on my list speaks to how stacked Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights is this year. Again, impressively designed, my only real fault with the house is that it's just one chainsaw scare after another. There's so much more variety in the other houses.
As for the shows this year, I can recommend them both. If you must settle for one, make it Halloween Nightmare Fuel, or as my RIP Tour host described it, "Cirque du Soleil discovers S&M." An upgrade from the old Academy of Villains shows, this production features great dancing, amazing fire stunts, and a couple of nifty magic tricks.
But don't sleep on the lagoon show, Marathon of Mayhem: Carnage Factory. Not that you could, if you tried. This high-decibel, water-projection tribute to Universal's Horror Nights IP fills the center of the park multiple times each evening.
Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights runs select evenings through October 31.
* * *
We wanted you to read this article before we make our newsletter pitch, unlike so many other websites. If you appreciate that - and our approach to covering theme park, travel, and entertainment news - please sign up for our free, three-times-a-week email newsletter. Thank you.
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.